Maybe it goes back to Adam and Eve, this fear of snakes that humans often have; that and the fact that we generally don’t like things to bite us. But if you take the time to learn about snakes, that fear might diminish when you realize it’s just another animal that eats, poops, moves around and makes little babies like the rest of us. Okay, maybe they don’t put their pants on one leg at a time like you and me, but you get the point.
Fairfax County Park Authority nature centers are convenient local places to learn about snakes. Among the things you’ll learn – Northern copperheads are the only venomous snakes in Fairfax County. Rattlesnakes are as close as Bull Run Mountain in Prince William County, but water moccasins are centered near the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.
Copperheads are rather heavy-bodied snakes and are beautifully marked with dark brown, hourglass-shaped cross bands on a light tan or gray background. Adult snakes are usually two to three feet long, and the belly is a mix of white and black markings. They are eight to ten inches at birth, about the size of a pencil.
Baby copperheads look just like their parents, but they have a bright yellow or green tail that they wiggle and use to lure lizards and frogs within striking range. Like other pit vipers, copperheads have a triangular head with facial pits and vertical pupils, just like a cat.
Northern Water Snake
Non-venomous snakes are often mistaken for copperheads, especially the Northern water snake and Eastern rat snake. If you see a patterned snake totally submerged in water, chances are it is not a Northern copperhead.
Copperheads are most active at night but also can move around or bask in sunshine during the daytime. In the hot summer, the woods are quite barren compared with our lush, irrigated yards, and various food sources around homes can easily draw rodents and snakes to your neighborhood.
What about snake bites?
The clear majority of snake bites occur when snakes are deliberately handled or poked by curious humans or curious pets. The Johnson Lab at the University of Florida says about 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. each year. That’s fewer than one strike for every 37,500 people. Typically, unless you accidentally contact a snake, you can avoid being bitten by maintaining a respectful distance from any snake that you see. In short, if you see one, just stay away from it. Most snakes will remain motionless when you come upon them and will allow you to pass by safely. The best precautions you can take are to wear proper footwear, such as closed-toe shoes on trails, wear fitted gloves when gardening or clearing areas of heavy foliage, and don long pants. Be aware of rock or wood piles outdoors. Snakes may hide there. Snakes also can be hard to see in tall grass and under ground cover such as invasive English ivy.
About a decade ago, I was bitten by a juvenile copperhead snake with a bright yellow tail. I was walking my dog at dusk on an asphalt trail through a wooded suburban park wearing flip-flops, and I probably stepped directly on the snake. It was just after a heavy storm, and leaves and mulch were scattered on the pavement, making the snake difficult to see. The snake bit me just below the ankle. I probably could have prevented a bite if I had been wearing any kind of hiking or athletic shoe. As an ecologist, I always wear proper footwear and clothing when I’m in the field, but I had let my guard down since I was at home in my own neighborhood. This taught me to take the same basic precautions whenever in the outdoors. If you or a pet are bitten by a venomous snake, seek immediate medical treatment. I received anti-venom at the hospital and have no lingering effects from the bite.
When not dealing with an emergency, if you get a photo of a snake and would like it identified, take the photo to a nature center or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff will gladly try to identify the snake and share information about why it was where you saw it.
The Virginia Herpetological Society is a good source of information about snakes in Virginia.
Author Kristen Sinclair is an Ecologist with the Fairfax County Park Authority.